In our previous post we described how complex pastures create complex flavors in our beef.  We discussed a number of other factors that play into the “beefy” flavor of our pasture grazed animals compared to the simple flavor of conventional beef.  When people first taste grass-fed beef they usually comment that it tastes “gamey”.  Around here I guess they are comparing that taste to deer.

citation buck

Jacob with his 2013 citation buck. Note the unusual second beam on left side of head.  Maybe someday Doug will get lucky!

Deer can travel wherever they like and eat whatever they like.  They can select the most nutritious food that is available year round.  Over the years I have shot a number of deer in this part Nebraska (still waiting for my chance at one like Jacob’s above).  During the cleaning of these deer I have noted that deer being opportunistic, will also feed on corn and other grains.  Yet, with over 50,000 deer harvested in Nebraska last year alone, I can’t think of a single time when someone said “that deer tasted like corn-fed beef.”

Healthy wild game tastes “gamey” for the same reason grass-fed beef tastes “gamey”.  It is the complex foods consumed by these animals that makes the meat flavor complex (and healthy).  They are not force fed a simple starch diet like conventional beef, with the sole purpose of getting fat.

The grain consumed by deer would be unlike the grain fed to conventional beef:

  • Whole kernel grains, not processed, rolled or roasted
  • Grain would be part of a complex diet, not a simple diet designed for getting fat
  • Grains would only be consumed seasonally, not for a significant time leading up to harvest

Now consider our beef herd.  We do not allow the cattle to run free like the deer (this keeps our neighbors happy).  We manage and control the herd movement to insure our cattle will have fresh forages year round.  During the non-growing season, “fresh” means a section of pasture that has not been grazed for the previous 4+ months.  Unlike deer, our cattle never receive any grain to insure that our beef has the healthy fat profile desired by our customers.

You know what nutrient dense food tastes like.  Remember the last time you ate an apple and thought to yourself, WOW that tasted great.  It doesn’t happen very often with a store bought apple these days, but maybe it came from a local orchard, and you just knew it was a good apple.  That good flavor came from complex nutritious compounds in the fruit.  Well, the next time you bite into some grass-fed beef with a noticeable flavor, just remember that flavor came from complex nutritious compounds in the meat.  This nutritious beef will satisfy you on a smaller portion size compared to conventional beef and you will feel better after eating it.

If you are finding the more complex flavor of pasture grazed beef is difficult for you or your children to adjust to, try our hot dogs or brats.  Consider using stew meat with vegetables or turning that pound of hamburger into meatloaf.  Use your imagination and your taste buds will soon adjust to what is naturally known to us as good tasting food, that is good for us.

Folks have commented that they really like how our ground beef fries up in the pan with little “grease”.  A friend said, “yeah, love grassfed beef, but still think it tastes a little ‘gamey’.”  I asked, “‘Gamey’ or ‘Beefy’ flavor?”   After a moment he said, “Ahhh, maybe that IS how beef should taste.”  Your taste buds aren’t confused, they probably don’t know any better, let me explain…

If you have spent anytime on our website, you know we refer to our beef as Pasture Grazed rather than grassfed because our cattle consume more than just grass.  Take a look at a list of known plants growing in our pasture:

Complext flavor of beef

“complex pastures create complex flavor in meat” – Grazing guru Jim Gerrish.

In addition to the flavor from our pasture, in earlier posts we discussed the following factors that play into the flavor/taste of our Pasture Grazed Beef:

  • TIME – overall flavor comes with animal maturity.
    • Our beef is harvested after 24 months of age.
    • The last 60-90 days of feed probably influences flavor the most.
  • FATS – Lynne Curry in her book Pure Beef notes:
    • “omega-3 level is one of the reasons grassfed beef has a more intense taste than grainfed beef”
    • Remember our beef is high in those good Omega 3 Fats!
    • Phospholipids fat, the fat we cannot see, stores the flavor.
    • The triglyceride fat we can see will be a hard creamy white to a tint of yellowing.
  • DRY AGING – Lynne Curry has this to say:
    • “It’s all a matter of taste, but many people find dry aging critical to giving the muscles their due time to dry and contract, concentrating the flavors, and letting the calpain enzymes do their tenderizing work.”
    • Our beef is allowed to dry age at least 14 days.
    • Since our beef is vacuum packed, consider letting it thaw in your fridge for an additional “wet age” period.
  • COMPLEX Pastures = primary and secondary plant metabolites
    • In this past post we encouraged you to “eat the rainbow” for your health.
    • Our cattle can transfer to us the part of the rainbow that we cannot eat first hand.

Now let’s take a look at the feed source for typical conventional beef:

Feedlot beef rations

Simple rations result in simple flavors in meat.

Look at the above feed for the last few months of feedlot beef.  Pickup some conventional hamburger at the grocery store.  Now look at the above list again, these are the primary ingredients that make up the store-bought hamburger.

  • Pickup up any other prepared food product in the grocery store.
    • Corn, corn, soybean and more of the same.
    • Aren’t you tired of eating corn for three meals a day?
    • Consider eating beef with real “beefy” flavor.
  • In addition to the simple feeds, feedlot beef are harvested much younger and don’t have the time to acquire “flavor”.
  • Dry aging, due to the time and locker space involved, is not practiced for conventional beef.  It is “wet aged” in a package waiting for purchase at the store.
  • Finally, when you add grain to the diet, the beef rumen bacteria populations switches over to “proteolytic”.
    • The good omega 3 fat disappears, along with the conjugated linoleic acid.
    • The fat turns from a hard milky white marble to a clear greasy fat.

So enjoy some “beefy” pasture based beef!  Just as folks like trying different wineries for the different flavors from each vineyard, we encourage you to try different pasture farm beef!  The different makeup of each farms pasture will give a unique flavor to the beef you find there.

pasture grazed beef

Late summer 2015 grazing, 24+ month old steer (mature flavor) on left. Not just grass-fed our herd is pasture grazed.  The cow in the right image literally ran past the rest of the herd to get to this patch of showy partridge pea when turned into this new paddock.  What was she seeking?  A specific nutrient, mineral or flavor?  Maybe she just likes the pretty flowers in our pasture?

 

Much of the following information comes from Mark Schatzker, author of the book “Steak – One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef“.  Using information from Mark we will try to answer the question, “What is the relationship between flavor and fat”?

triglycerides fat we see, phospholipids fat within the cell wall we can't see

USDA grading based on marbling fat and exterior trim fat (triglycerides), the fat we can see.

Previously we noted that the USDA grading system is based on visible carcass fat.  When the grading system originated, almost all “fat” cattle were fattened on grass and forages, not on grain (corn).  There are two kinds of fat in meat, what you can see is called “triglycerides” and fat at the cell level (what you cannot see) is known as “phospholipids”.  Phospholipid fat is actually within the cell walls, also refered to as structural fat.  Mark Schatzker describes a University test where all the triglyceride fat (marbling and trim) was removed from a piece of meat and prepared.  The sample still tasted like beef.  In another meat sample all phospholipid fat was extracted.  When this piece was prepared it tasted like burnt hair.  Obviously, the fat stored at the cell level contains the flavor we know as “beef”.

Luckily we can also “see” the potential for flavor stored at the cell level by observing the visible (triglyceride) fat.  White or ivory colored fat, like the sample shown above, reflects a forage based diet.  Conventional beef fat will tend to appear clear.  So what is going on?  Mark Schatzker thinks the rumen (special stomach found in cattle that handles grass and forage digestion) alters or changes the chemicals in pasture grass and expresses the altered plant chemicals as flavor in the beef.

Researching the topic a little further we turn to Mark Bader’s website.  Mark Bader, President of Free Choice Enterprises, Ltd., explains that within the rumen, proteolytic bacteria (grain digesters) and cellulolytic bacteria (forage digesters) work side by side and compete for space.  In a forage based diet, the cellulolytic bacteria thrive and carry out their work and acetic acid production increases.  This increase in acetic acid promotes high solid fat (white marbling) in meat.  When proteolytic bacteria dominate the rumen in a high grain (corn) diet, “greasy” fat accumulates over the muscle (clear fat).

Mark Bader comments confirm Mark Schatzker thoughts on the difference between bland tasting grain fed beef versus flavorful grass-fed beef.  Mark Schatzker goes on to say we cannot stop at the diet of the animal.  In addition to a forage based diet, just as important, is TIME.  Immature fat (animals harvested young) will have a definite “off-flavor”.  Harvesting mature animals is a must for excellent flavored meat.

Looking for excellent flavored beef?  Look for animals raised primarily on a forage based diet and allowed to mature.  Remember, when USDA setup the protocol for “PRIME” beef, cattle were harvested after they fully matured from a forage based diet.  Consider seeking out beef raised like grandpa use to and they will taste like beef should.

Our earlier post (The taste of beef), pointed out that the USDA beef grading system is based largely on visible carcass fat, the best grade known as Prime.  When the grading system originated (1920s), almost all beef had a much higher percentage of grass in their diet and harvested at a much older age than beef today.

usda prime beef shield

USDA grading system for beef largely based on visible fat (triglycerides). Photo source: http://www.ams.usda.gov

Today a conventionally raised (corn-fed) USDA Prime steak, in my opinion, has very little flavor.  Maybe because almost every processed food product today contains CORN.  We eat corn for breakfast, we drink corn during lunch, we eat corn at snack time, we drive home using corn in our vehicles, we have corn during our evening meal and finally relax in the evening with corn for desert.  Corn corn corn, give me a break, but I digress.

If we have a Prime steak fattened primarily on grass and another Prime steak fattened primarily on corn and the USDA grades on visible fat, do they taste the same?  Of course not, refer to the post A cow named grass-fed.  Does beef flavor come from “fat”?  Yes and No.  Flavor is stored in fat (more in a future post) but the flavor actually comes from the diet of the animal.  The animal is largely, what it eats.  Remember also, you are largely what you eat and when you eat meat, you are what your meat eats.

Do you want to experience true flavor in the beef you consume?  Find a local farmer and get to know their production practices.  Then taste their beef and you will be experiencing the “flavor of their farm”.  Maybe you will find some beef like grandpa use to raise.

 

In a previous post (A cow named grass-fed) it was noted that animals raised with a significant part of their diet as grass will have a taste quite different from corn-fed (conventional) beef.  Why is this?  Doesn’t USDA Prime labeled beef mean “taste great”?  One would think that the highest level of a grading system for beef would indicate better tasting beef.

Does the grading system take into account taste?  Not really, maybe because it depends on individual preferences?  I would argue that when the grading system was originally established in the 1920’s, PRIME beef did relate to great tasting (grass-fed) beef.  The grading system is based largely on the amount of fat displayed by the carcass.  In the 1920’s almost all beef was grass-fed or at least a large portion of their diet was grass.  A PRIME animal was a fat grass-fed (grass fat) animal.  The taste of beef in the 1920s was probably much different from the beef found in stores today.

So what happened to our beef in North America?  With the advent of the grading system and the market now providing an incentive for beef considered PRIME, farmers adapted production to find the quickest and cheapest way to get cattle fat (remember, higher grades based on amount of visible fat).  This production mode continues to this day.  This model today usually involves:

  1. Early weaning of large framed calves implanted with growth hormones
  2. Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO)
  3. High startch diet – grains (corn)
  4. Short animal life span (harvested as early as 18 months), on grass for as little as 90 days
  5. Numerous inputs to maintain animal health, sometimes involving antibiotics and chemical wormers

Compare the above process to what a PRIME beef would have looked like in the 1920’s:

  1. Small framed calves raised on grass with their momma for up to 10 months
  2. Forages as a large part of the animals diet over the entire life of the animal
  3. Harvested at 2 years of age or older
  4. Little use of inputs such as antibiotics or chemical wormers

Folks today really only know the taste (or lack of taste) of corn-fed beef.  When the original grading system was established, those folks really only knew the taste of grass-fed beef.

Does that mean that taste is related to fat?  I will cover that in a future post.

So what do you think?  What kind of beef would you rather consume comparing the two options above.  The good news today, we have a choice between corn-fed beef or grass-fed beef. We encourage you to find a local farmer that you can visit with concerning their production practices.